If you’re one of the small number of people who knew who Richard Hawley is over the past seven or eight years, you probably only knew him by name, merely as the guitarist in Britpop flash-in-the-pan Longpigs, and in recent years, as the touring second guitarist for Pulp. A veteran session player for the majority of his career, Hawley waited until his early-30’s to put out his first solo full-length. That album, Late Night Final, which was released in the UK in 2001 and in the States in 2002, was nothing short of shocking. All this time, Pulp had been performing with a major songwriting talent onstage with them, unbeknownst to fans and band members alike. Late Night Final was an especially confident, unabashedly sentimental, sweetly romantic debut that not only showcased Hawley’s guitar skill, but more impressively, his smooth, warm baritone voice. That voice, sounding like a cross between legendary balladeer Scott Walker (who Hawley worked with on Pulp’s 2001 album We Love Life), Leonard Cohen, and his good friend Jarvis Cocker, makes Hawley sound like the quintessential brooding loner. Like Nick Drake, he’s a master at crafting melodies so simple, so memorable, it makes your heart melt.
Now comes Hawley’s follow-up. Lowedges, named after a district in his hometown of Sheffield, follows the same formula, but is a marked improvement over the previous album. Hawley inhabits a world that doesn’t seem to exist anymore; much like filmmaker David Lynch, his music is contemporary, but yearns for a more innocent time, a world of crooning pop ballads, motorcycles, and sitting inside on rainy nights with a pretty girl. But unlike Lynch, the quiet, dreamy mood remains constant, with no Frank Booth bursting in to ruin the nice time. His music, a spellbinding blend of Phil Spector, Scott Walker, and the moody, retro stylings of Lynch’s composer Angelo Badalamenti, differs so greatly from the music of his contemporaries, that Hawley’s complete lack of irony, his from-the-heart sincerity sounds shocking at first, but soon, you can’t get enough of it.
The new album takes the sound of Late Night Final and intensifies the intimacy. Lowedges gets off to a grand, majestic start on “Run for Me”, which combines the thrumming tones of Spector’s Righteous Brothers ballads and the country strains of pedal steel guitar. “The lane is laced with ashes / My road is paved with fear”, croons Hawley in that velvety voice of his, as a gorgeous string arrangement underscores the song’s melancholy tone. The pleasant, quiet strains of “Darlin’” bring to mind Leonard Cohen’s simple melodies from the late ‘60s, as Hawley adds layer upon layer of reverb-heavy lap steel guitar. The equally simple “Oh My Love” and “It’s Over Love” both show that Hawley is unafraid to keep things simple; sometimes all that needs to be said is the most obvious thing, and although it’s been done a million times before, when you mean what you say, you can make it work, and this track works beautifully.
Much of the album shows greater lyrical depth, however, as Hawley gets even more introspective than on his previous record. On the ethereal “The Only Road”, Hawley gets Cohenesque with his stirring imagery, softly singing, “The only road I walk alone, where beauty nails me to her cross / Bleeding from my hands and feet I whisper that my love is lost / I water flowers in the rain, I dance beneath your silver flames”. “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your River Runs Dry)” sounds like the typical folk pop that came out of Britain in the early ‘60s, with its simple, poignant poetry, while “The Motorcycle Song” acts as both a tribute to Hawley’s beloved Triumph Trophy and a commentary on his own restless life thus far: “I don’t know my way back home / My motorcycle’s full of holes”.
Lowedges comes to a strong conclusion: “I’m on Nights”, with its supercool, vibrato solo licks, perfectly encapsulates the life of a lonely, lovesick night shift worker, while the sublime instrumental “Danny” tones down on the effects, in favor of more straightforward acoustic guitar (Hawley’s instrumental work is so great on his albums, that he should be scoring feature films). The chiming notes of “The Nights Are Made for Us”, much like Badalamenti’s songwriting, mine the pop music of the ‘50s, most notably doo wop, but instead of a high-pitched siren like Julee Cruise singing, Hawley’s deep, smoky voice works much more effectively here, as he tells his woman there’s nothing wrong with being miserable together: “All our days are cursed / It feels so right to lust / It helps to heal the loss”. Rarely does feeling so hopeless and sad ever sound so enticing. Perfect for quiet, rainy nights, this album is easily one of 2003’s finest buried treasures.
// Notes from the Road
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